Eric Schlosser on the future of food

May 10, 2011

Excerpted remarks from the Washington Post Live Future of Food Conference held May 4 at Georgetown University:

I hate to begin a wonderful conference like this by expressing my disappointment with it. But here goes. I’m disappointed that there aren’t more food industry executives on the panels today. I really wish that there were.

A long list of companies was invited to join us here today, and a long list of companies declined. It’s an odd thing. When these big companies and their surrogates attack the sustainability movement, they sound very tough and very macho. And they call us all kinds of bad names. But when we invite them to come and sit with us and talk about these issues and engage in a dialogue, they suddenly become very timid and very shy, and they decline to appear. So, I would really like to welcome, sincerely, the food executives who are in this hall today, who have agreed to appear on panels today. I think you’ll find that we want a dialogue, that we want to find areas of common ground. And I think you’ll find that even if you don’t agree with us, we do know how to serve a good lunch.

Today, yes, we are honored, very honored, to be hearing from the Prince of Wales, the heir to the British throne. But we’re also honored to be hearing from the son of a peasant farmer in Guerrero, Mexico, who came to this country at the age of 17 to pick tomatoes and pick oranges, and who is right now fighting for the rights of migrant farm workers in the United States. And we’re honored to hear from the son of a South Carolina sharecropper, who is right now building urban farms to feed the poor. And we’re honored to hear from a pediatrician turned philanthropist, who is leading the effort in California to turn low-income communities into healthy communities.

And we’re honored to hear from a poet and a novelist and a farmer in Kentucky, whose work for the past 40 years has called for a new, a more democratic, a more humane and a more humble relationship with the land. What has brought this diverse group of people here today — the farm worker advocate and the future king, the urban farmer from Milwaukee and the organic farmer from Montana, who also happens to be a U.S. senator — what has brought us here today is the belief that our current food system is broken. The costs that it’s imposing now are too high to pay. And we believe this system must be changed.

And nowhere, nowhere is this change needed more than in the topic of this first panel, the impact of this system on working people in this country, on poor people in this country, and on people of color. Today, the chemical companies and the biotech companies like to dismiss organic food as something trendy and elitist. Well, you know who needs organic food production more than anyone else? The people who need organic food more than anyone else are the 2 million farm workers in the United States who pick by hand almost all of the fresh fruits and vegetables in the United States. And their children need organic food, too. For them, the need for organics isn’t an academic issue and it has nothing to do with the latest trends. It is literally a matter of life and death. Pesticides are poisons. They have been carefully designed to kill insects, weeds, funguses and rodents. But they also can kill human beings. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that every year, 10,000 to 20,000 farm workers in the United States suffer acute pesticide poisoning on the job, and that is probably a great understatement. We’re talking about direct exposure to toxic poisons.

And what are the potential harms of these pesticides? Brain damage, lung damage, cancers of the breast, colon, lung, pancreas and kidney, birth defects, sterility and other ailments. So that’s who needs organic food in America: the men and women and children who harvest our food.

Again and again you will find, when you look at our industrial system, that the changes that have occurred in the last 40 years, the rise of the centralized, industrialized food production, have hurt the weakest and the poorest in America more than anyone else. Migrant farm workers are being not only exposed to a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals on the job; they have also been subjected to a massive pay cut. Over the last 40 years, the wages of some migrant farm workers in America, adjusted for inflation, have dropped by more than 50 percent: a more than 50 percent pay cut. The restaurant industry has also seen a decline in wages. The restaurant industry is the largest employer of minimum-wage workers in the United States and, thanks in large part to the lobbying efforts of the fast-food chains, the real value of the minimum wage in the United States is almost 30 percent lower than it was in 1968. That means that the very poorest workers in this country have gotten a pay cut of almost one-third. While workers in the food industry are earning less, consumers are paying for this industrial food system with their health.

Small children, the poor and people of color are being harmed most of all. During the last 40 years, the obesity rate among American preschoolers has doubled. Among children aged 6 to 11, the obesity rate has tripled. Obesity has been linked to asthma, cancer, heart disease and diabetes. African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be poor than non-Hispanic whites and are much more likely to be obese. So, as upper-middle-class consumers seek out healthier foods, the fast-food chains are targeting low-income and minority communities, targeting children in low-income communities much like tobacco companies once did when well-educated people began to quit smoking.

So this first panel, this opening panel, will explore what, for me, is the most important question of today’s sustainability movement: How do we reduce the harms being imposed on the people in this country who can least afford them? Every single person in this country deserves a living wage and a safe workplace and access to good, healthy, affordable food, because a food system that’s based on poverty and exploitation can never be sustainable.

Schlosser is the author of “Fast Food Nation” (Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

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